About two years ago the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. came to the University of Tennessee and for a few days I was very excited about the idea of seeing him in person and listening to his comments. However, by the time the day of the even actually arrived, I decided to stay away. This may be hard to explain, but I'll try.
The thing is - I treasure his words and his writing. In retrospect, maybe I should have gone. But there's the real person of Vonnegut but there's another Vonnegut too - the one who has been in my imagination since I first read his books back in the mid-1970s. His work and his words are a major reason I decided it wasn't crazy to want to be a writer (it is crazy, of course, but "so it goes'). I love that in "Breakfast of Champions" he has childishly scrawled drawings to emphasize his words. And he appears as a character in this story and maybe that's another reason I did not want to have to deal with the real-life Vonnegut -- I know and am a lifetime friend of the imaginary Vonnegut in my head and I am loathe to think of tarnishing that Vonnegut with the pesky intrusion of a real-life person. In other words, why fix something that isn't broken.
His books and his essays express something I have seen myself: this country has gone cuckoo. I read recent interview with him in the Globe and Mail as he marks his 82nd birthday, and he still has the skill to express that idea succinctly:
"I have a huge disappointment about what this country might have been instead of what it's become," he says. "You forget there was something great about the Great Depression. The president was Franklin Roosevelt, who cared generally about all of us. And things were getting better -- talk about audacity, giving women the power to vote, in 1919. It took a while for even women to adjust to it. Only now are they really getting the feeling of it. And then after the war when the civil-rights movement came in, that was exciting! So there were these huge improvements, where we were becoming what we always imagined ourselves to be. No shit, becoming that!"
And as always, Time is still playing tricks with him and with all of us:
"Where is home? I've wondered where home is, and I realized, it's not Mars or someplace like that, it's Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and a father and uncles and aunts. And there's no way I can get there again."
From the 1930s up until the Nixon presidency, we were a nation compelled to reach beyond our grasp, innovators in both the social and political arena, determined to improve the human condition, confident that the people who called this country home could achieve anything if we worked at it in unison. Like many others, I thought when we spotted the corruption of Nixon's paranoid leadership we could continue. But doubt took root and despair seemed to flower. We seemed to bemoan the loss of a failing set of institutions and by 1980 had traded in self-reliance a pretend nostalgia, for a dream of an imaginary world on some Reagan-government illusion of an ephemeral and unreal "City on a hill."
As Vonnegut might say, we elevated diddley-squat to the top and called it Moral and Just.
Now, poverty is growing faster and faster, mediocrity is championed, and the battered and beaten American spends more time watching the repeat newsreel with pretty flashing lights and constantly moving newstracks that follow the latest celebrity scandals and fads about food and clothes. We are distracted and the ill-thought delusions of our leaders have us focusing on fear and doubt and the idea that the government is the only solution to any issue. Harried by the day to day chase to make ends meet, we are left with surface ideology while those in power make changes to firmly grasp the controls we once kept for ourselves.
Bickering clowns take center stage for our amusement while small cliques of obsessed and wealthy megalomaniacs continue to dismantle hope and reason. We are back to debating issues long since resolved - should the theory of evolution be actually taught in Science classes or should Science be tossed away for Bible stories. Like Vonnegut, I bemoan the loss of an America where students and teachers debated Science and Theory in the schools and students and teachers debated the aspects of Faith and Creation in church.
Is church membership now the priority for Supreme Court Justices?
How is it that the American community now thinks the Constitutional right of Free Speech only occurs on a street corner and employees and writers do not have those rights? Seems just a simple reading of our Constitution shows the right of free speech is applied to every citizen of this country.
But this country seems more confused with every passing day.